Looking Back

Dawoud Bey

March 4, 2019

Walker Evans, 42nd Street, 1929. ©Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We asked Dawoud Bey to tell us about a picture that means something to him, and why. Bey’s exhibition Night Coming Tenderly, Black is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 14 and The Birmingham Project is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through March 24.

I must have seen this Walker Evans photograph of an elegantly attired black woman in mid-town Manhattan sometime in the early-mid 1970s, when I was first getting seriously interested in making photographs myself. I can’t recall what publication I saw it in, but it stopped me in my tracks. I was in the midst of trying to figure out what my own subject matter would be, what I would turn my own sustained attention to now that I had decided to look at the world through the rectangular space of the camera in a more sustained way, and extract from that activity something meaningful. This photograph helped me figure that out.

In the picture we see a black woman in momentary repose amid the ongoing activity of the busy New York streets. Cars rush by, a man appears to be crossing the street on the left, navigating his way between the traffic, and this elegant woman, on her way to somewhere, stopped by a curious photographer, who is decidedly of a different race than her, who requests to take her picture. She consents, bringing the full weight of her grace and penetrating gaze to bear on the momentary exchange. Evans sees everything all at once: the long-coated, white-gloved policeman descending the subways stairs and heading ominously into the scene, the type on the stairs echoing the “Royal” presence in front of him, the elevated tracks and railing of the steps framing the woman in this space, making it hers, and he makes a photograph that forever elevates this one black woman into a state of enduring and timeless grace and elegance.